Duke/UNC: McDonald: 'It was nerve-wracking when I was a freshman'
North Carolina sophomore J.P. Tokoto said he would offer some simple advice to his freshmen teammates before they get their first taste of one of the most celebrated rivalries in sports.
“Basically, it’s just another game,” Tokoto said. “That’s how we have to look at it. Pretty much tell them to just play their game.”
Of course, Tokoto doesn’t really believe that.
“No, I don’t. Not me,” Tokoto said. “But I feel like that would help them out mentally.”
There will be key people on both sides who will play on the one of the biggest stages in college athletics for the first time when Duke travels to the Smith Center tonight (9 p.m., WRAL/ESPN).
The eighth-ranked Blue Devils (19-5, 8-3) are led by freshman Jabari Parker and redshirt sophomore transfer Rodney Hood, both all-ACC candidates. The Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4) will call on freshman Kennedy Meeks, the 6-foot-9, 290-pound center from Charlotte who is 80 pounds heavier than Duke counterpart Amile Jefferson.
Duke certainly has an advantage on the perimeter — the Blue Devils lead the ACC in three-point shooting at 42 percent, while UNC’s current 3-point percentage (31.9) is on track to be the lowest in school history. The Tar Heels hope that they will have an edge on the inside.
“We really want to establish our big guys in the paint — especially Kennedy,” point guard Marcus Paige said. “He’s got size that no one else on the court tomorrow’s going to have. So we like to get him going, and our best offense is when we get to the basket or we’re in the paint.”
But Meeks, like his team, has been incredibly inconsistent. While the Charlotte native has been in the starting lineup the entire time during UNC’s current five-game winning streak, coach Roy Williams wouldn’t commit to starting Meeks over sophomore Brice Johnson against Duke.
Meeks, who averages 7.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in conference play, was 6 of 19 from the field in his last three games.
“He was 1 for 6 the other day (against Notre Dame); we can’t stand that,” Williams said. “We need one of those 6 for 6, 7 for 7-type performances.
“Kennedy’s going to be a good player but he’s not at that level yet, except I hope he eats the right Cheerios for breakfast tomorrow and it works for him tomorrow night. But he hasn’t shown that he’s going to be a guy that can score 20 points and foul out three guys on the other team yet, which I’m hoping it will get that stage. And I wouldn’t mind if it starts tomorrow night.”
It remains to be seen if Meeks rises to the occasion against Duke as he did in the team’s early-season upsets over Louisville (13 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists) and Michigan State (team-high 15 points, seven rebounds). Redshirt senior Leslie McDonald said that the Duke rivalry isn’t like other games.
“It was nerve-wracking when I was a freshman,” McDonald said. “Just thinking, ‘Hey, I used to watch these teams go at it on television and now I’m playing for one of these teams, I’m in it, I’m in the rivalry.’ It was overwhelming at first, but now I’m used to it.”
Meeks should have plenty of help from his veteran teammates. Paige is fifth in the ACC in scoring (17.0) and fourth in assists (4.6), while junior James Michael McAdoo has reached double-figures in scoring in 16 straight games. After starting 1-4 in the ACC, the Tar Heels also have the confidence that comes from winning five straight games by double digits.
But Duke has won seven of the last nine in the series — including the last two games at the Smith Center, on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Austin Rivers in 2012 and in a romp on UNC’s senior night in 2013.
Still, Williams said that the series was cyclical — the Tar Heels won 6 of 7 before Duke’s recent streak — and he doesn’t expect the recent history to have any effect on tonight’s game.
“I’m not going to have Tyler Hansbrough,” Williams said. “Austin Rivers is not going to make another shot. It’s just got to be these two teams.”
Despite the forecast of snow and ice in Chapel Hill today and Thursday, UNC team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Tuesday that the Duke-UNC game will almost certainly be played as scheduled.
“We encourage everyone who is coming to the game to use good judgment, drive carefully and hopefully we won’t have any issues with that,” Kirschner said.
ACC policy is to cancel games only if the teams and the officials can’t make it to the arena safely. The Tar Heels played at Georgia Tech two weeks ago despite a winter storm that paralyzed the Atlanta region and kept ESPN from being able to televise the game.
Trucks from the ACC Network, which is showing the game along with ESPN, were already set up at the Smith Center on Tuesday afternoon.